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January 2009

It's the economy, folks

Lately, the two questions I get asked the most often are "How's the economy going to affect the university?" and "What's up with building a new airport?"

I can take care of the second question quickly. As I announced earlier this month, after careful consideration, I have asked the UNC Board of Governors not to create an airport authority to identify a replacement site for Horace Williams Airport. Many of you, especially the residents of rural Orange County, have received the message already. I have seen the "Thank You" signs that have replaced the ones that said "No Airport."

But there are also some airport-related rumors out there that I would like to put to rest. The most common one is that the university doesn't need a new airport because it plans to keep Horace Williams Airport open and build Carolina North around it. That is not true. We will keep Horace Williams open as long as we can while we build a hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, from which our doctors will fly to do their valuable work at the Area Health Education Center clinics.

Another rumor I have heard is that we will be keeping Horace Williams open because we can't afford to build either a new airport or a new hangar at RDU due to the recent economic downturn. It's true that we have already made cuts campus-wide because of reductions in state appropriations this fiscal year, and we expect more to come. We expect the economy to delay our plans for both the hangar and Carolina North.

But these cuts do not mean that we are abandoning our plans to develop Carolina North. The opportunity to build a dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented environment for academic programs, research, and housing is just the kind of stimulus the economy needs at this time and in the near future.

State construction funds are frozen for the moment, but the federal stimulus efforts appear likely to include increases in research spending. Those increases will likely mean more research at Carolina.

While it's hard to see at this point precisely how these elements will come together, it's all the more reason to be ready to go on Carolina North.

UNC Board of Trustees Chair Roger Perry agrees with me.

"We feel a real sense of urgency that the time is now," he told the Chapel Hill Town Council earlier this month. "We want to move forward with this." This urgency is why we are continuing to work so aggressively to reach an agreement on the zone and the development plan for Carolina North by June.

The short-term news is good for us with one key capital project. In one of his last acts before leaving office, Gov. Mike Easley included our Dental Science Building as part of his fast-track plan to boost the state's construction industry and economy, so that construction will be moving ahead.

And our research funding is up even at the current levels of federal spending. Carolina's research grants and contracts totaled $678.2 million in fiscal 2008 -- more than double the amount from a decade ago. We set a record for research funding in fiscal 2007 with $610 million, but the current year's total exceeded that by 11 percent.

The prestigious National Institutes of Health showed its confidence in the work we are doing when it increased the grants and contracts awarded to Carolina by $356 million, at a time when its own funding has grown stagnant. We are outperforming the market for research grants and show a strong potential for future growth.

Our applications are up 10 percent from last year. We expect to receive about 23,500 applications this year, an increase of roughly 5,000 over just four years ago. These applicants are smart enough to realize what an outstanding value Carolina is -- the No. 1 best value in American public higher education for the eighth consecutive time, according to Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine.

We keep making a Carolina education more affordable. Just the other day, I spoke to a group of students -- those who attend the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham -- who receive free tuition if they enroll at Carolina. And even in these tough times, we still promise to meet the economic need of any student who enrolls here, through an array of grants, work-study and student loans. We are especially proud of the Carolina Covenant, our innovative scholarship program that promises a debt-free education for low-income students.

I won't deny that there is bad news in the national, state and local economy. But at Carolina, despite the recession, we are off to a good start in 2009, and we are positioning ourselves to move forward as current conditions evolve.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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